Of all the items she expected to find in the fridge, Michiru didn't think there would be a box of natto next to her usual carton of walnut milk. For a moment, she was so lost that she could only stare into the fridge and let the cool air hit her in the face.
The common space was reserved for the five Edels—a privilege granted to the select five best students at Siegfeld. Among one another, the girls knew each other well enough to have an unspoken agreement to keep certain food from ever being stocked in the fridge.
Sea cucumbers were banned for Michiru's sake, for instance. It helped that none of the Edels normally ate it to begin with. Pineapples and eggs were acceptable in their original form—Yachiyo's complaints came from pineapples in sweet and sour pork, and Mei Fan only ever ran out of the room if she saw anyone eating a raw egg on rice. Eggplants were the main exception; since the rest of the Edels were fine eating it, Michiru convinced Akira to simply suck it up.
"It's not like any of us are forcing you to eat it, you dummy," Michiru had chastised. "We'll make sure to open all the windows and spray air freshener after cooking it, alright?"
But other than sea cucumbers, there was another item that was strictly banned. Even if the other Edels ate it on occasion, none of them would dare buy it when their youngest Edel could see or smell it. The most important unspoken agreement between the Edels was to strictly prohibit this particular dish from ever being brought into the Edels' refrigerator.
Natto beans, Yumeoji Shiori's most disliked food. It was no wonder—it had a particular texture that not many could enjoy, and its smell was rather pungent as well. The other Edels were used to eating it, but they respected Shiori's dislike.
Then why was there a box in the fridge, placed where no one could miss it?
"Akira?" Michiru pulled out the box of natto, inspecting its sides to see if it could give her any clues. None. So she waved it behind her toward their president seated at the dining table, "Do you know who bought this natto?"
Akira placed down the script she had been perusing, her usual frown deepening at the box in question. "No. I was not aware that it was even in the refrigerator. Who could have been foolish enough to purchase it, let alone bring it back here?"
"Considering Shiori dislikes them so much, I highly doubt she got it. Mei Fan would cry at the thought of upsetting Shiori. So that leaves Yachiyo."
"Leaves me what?" asked the Edel in question, a hand covering her mouth to suppress a small yawn as she entered the common room.
With the box between her fingers, Michiru pointed it at Yachiyo. "Would you happen to have an idea of who bought this?"
All traces of sleep instantly disappeared from Yachiyo's wide eyes. "Is that natto I see? I thought we were all in agreement to keep that out of our fridge at all costs. Unlike eggplant, it could smell way too much for Shiori to ignore."
At the mention of another particular dislike, Akira scowled. "It seems it wasn't Yachiyo as well. And I too doubt Mei Fan could have made this error."
Michiru frowned at the box of natto. "Well if it wasn't any of us, then who…?"
Yachiyo held a finger to her lips, humming in thought. "Could it be…?"
"What is it, Yachiyo?" Akira asked, narrowing her eyes at her.
"This might be part of the 'self-improvement' training that Shiori was talking about a few days ago."
"'Self-improvement' training?" Michiru and Akira parroted in confusion.
"I'm surprised. You two haven't heard?" Yachiyo made her way to the kitchen counter, grabbing her bag of coffee beans from one of the shelves. "Then again, I guess Shiori isn't really making any of this public knowledge."
Michiru raised an eyebrow at her. "And you happen to know this because…?"
"Total coincidence! But anyway, I'm guessing this is all to prepare for her role as the Chariot." Yachiyo poured the beans into the coffee machine before continuing, "You know how she's been trying to improve herself to match Tamao-san and Fumi-san at the Performance Festival? This is probably part of it."
"Shiori has been pretty focused on all of that," Michiru remarked. A little overly so, but at least she wasn't working herself so hard that she coughed her lungs out again.
Akira nodded with a proud grin, as if she had just discovered how to factory reset a computer. "And the path she has chosen involves overcoming all of her weaknesses, including natto. I see."
"I don't know if that's something she needs to do, but I see we're all in agreement to let her be," Michiru said. "Unless you have anything to say about this, Yachiyo."
"Me?" Yachiyo leaned back against the counter as she waited for her coffee to brew. "None at all. Since Shiori hasn't explicitly asked any of us for help, I was planning to simply respect her wishes."
Sensing the end of the conversation, Michiru placed the natto back into the fridge. Finally somewhat more at ease, she grabbed the carton of milk she was initially looking for and poured herself a glass to drink.
After gulping down the entire glass, she declared, "Well, that's that then. I just hope Shiori knows what she's getting herself into."
"This is Shiori's decision. We can only respect that," Akira said, turning her attention back to the script she had placed down earlier.
The coffee machine beeped. As Yachiyo poured herself a cup, she paused for a moment to remark, "While I know the three of us are in agreement, I feel like there's one last person who might… jump the gun and decide something on her own."
A beat of silence as the possibility registered in the three Edels.
Michiru suppressed the urge to smash her empty glass against her forehead. I have a bad feeling about this.
Her intuition was almost always correct. Michiru hated that this was the case this time as well.
The five of them were gathered in the sitting area of the common room. Akira leaned against the wall to the side, stoic as usual. Yachiyo took residence in one of the sofa chairs, casually flipping through one of her magazines. Shiori and Mei Fan took the main sofa, the former a lot more sheepish than the latter.
And so Michiru chose to stand, for once towering over the two with her arms crossed.
"So you found out about the natto in the fridge, asked Shiori about it, and then decided to bring us all into this?" Michiru asked Mei Fan.
On her end, Mei Fan's amber eyes were meeting Michiru and Akira's stares with admirable resolve. "I understand this may be out of line, but I believe Shiori had the right idea. To overcome one's weaknesses is a laudable goal. I believe we can all benefit from this mindset."
"And so your conclusion is for all of us to overcome our own weaknesses as well." Michiru sighed. "In other words, try to eat the foods we dislike with her?"
Yachiyo's eyes left her magazine, lips curving up into an amused smile. "Who died and made you king?"
Akira sent her a pointed glare. "Yachiyo."
Despite her mischievous grin, Yachiyo had the decency to look sheepish. "Woops. Too soon?"
Shiori looked between the three with confusion. If Mei Fan had any questions of her own, she simply ignored it and turned to Yachiyo.
"And didn't you say so yourself, Yachiyo? By tackling your dislike for pineapples in sweet and sour pork, you and Shiori were able to connect with your characters as Cain and Holly in a way that allowed you both to act out your roles better."
Yachiyo's smirk twitched, faltering for a brief second. "Well, sure. Except I was hoping you wouldn't analyze it beyond the cute bonding moment I had with Shiori."
"Um…!" Shiori piped up, speaking for the first time since the five of them had gathered together. "I don't want to trouble you all. This was my decision to make. You don't have to force yourselves to do something you don't want to."
In her attempt to be kind and considerate, Shiori had ultimately sealed the fate of the four older Edels. With her downcast gaze and twiddling thumbs, voicing her concerns with such genuine worry and vulnerability, there was absolutely no way any of them could leave her alone now.
"I see the logic, and therefore will not immediately disagree." Akira shifted her gaze to her best friend, the ice in her eyes melting in an instant. "Michiru, I defer the decision to you."
In other words, Akira was leaving her with the difficult choice: either make her underclassmen sad or have them all suffer together. As expected of their selfish king.
Well, I did say it was my job as her right-hand woman to do her dirty work.
There were other ways to improve their abilities as Stage Girls. Trying to get over their respective food preferences was so far removed from the immediate strategies that it was almost ridiculous to consider. Michiru seriously doubted conquering her hatred for sea cucumbers would make an audition or revue easier.
Though, it is true that doing so could build tolerance and resilience. Overcoming a strong dislike required a certain strength of will, patience, and understanding for a difficult challenge that could theoretically be applied to other obstacles. Such as becoming a Top Star.
…Now she was just pulling bullshit.
But Shiori was looking more like a kicked puppy, and Mei Fan too much of an enthusiastic puppy. She needed to make a decision before Yachiyo somehow joined in with her cheekiness.
Michiru's shoulders slumped in defeat. "Alright, fine. If anything, this can be a good exercise for us to improve our bonds as Edels. But—!"
Mei Fan perked up, shoulders ramrod straight. Beside her, Shiori also sat at attention to listen properly.
"We're making proper dishes. If we're going to try overcoming our dislikes, we might as well make it easier on ourselves by making the food right."
In the corner of her eyes, Michiru saw Akira open her mouth. Before she could utter a single word, Michiru cut in, "And yes, you can slather all the hot sauce you want on your eggplants, Akira."
Akira crossed her arms, looking away with a small huff. "You make it sound like I would be ruining them. If anything, it would enhance its flavor to be more enjoyable."
"Well, just don't drown your plate in sauce. There's no point if it's been altered so much that it's practically nonexistent."
"Wait," Yachiyo closed her magazine, her smirk sobering to a light frown, "we're seriously doing this? Eggplants, sea cucumbers, raw egg on rice, natto, and…"
"Pineapples in sweet and sour pork," Mei Fan finished for her when she paused for too long.
"O-Only if you want to try!" Shiori's gaze fell, fingers back to playing with her skirt. "This was initially just my choice. But… I suppose I wouldn't mind the support—in any shape or form!"
"And the rest of us are in agreement to see it through with her," Michiru said. "Unless you have second thoughts. Speak now or hold your peace, as they say."
For a moment, Michiru swore she saw something crack behind Yachiyo's blank stare. But it was hard to tell when she simply shook her head with a small chuckle.
Placing her magazine on the coffee table, Yachiyo offered them a shrug. "Well, alright. What's the worst that can happen?"
It took about a week for them to clear their schedules, run to the grocery store to buy the necessary ingredients, and obtain the right recipes to cook each required dish. To make it easier on all of them, Michiru assigned Akira and Mei Fan to get groceries, Yachiyo to get recipes, and had Shiori help her get the kitchen prepped. Then everyone took turns helping on a dish that wasn't their disliked food.
They were already being subjected to the horror of eating them. Might as well make their lives somewhat easier.
And so upon dinnertime, the five Edels sat around the dining table with a giant pot of rice and an interesting assortment of dishes for dinner. Most of them were suggestions that Yachiyo had gotten from Mahiru and Nana from Seisho.
Apparently stir-fried Japanese eggplant and cucumbers and sweet and sour pork were frequent dishes in the Tsuyuzaki household. Mahiru had sent Yachiyo a long text message with the recipes, including notes and tips on how to handle the ingredients.
Nana had then suggested a better way to eat natto was to add more than just plain rice. And so, she had instructed Yachiyo to mix in some diced avocado, cucumbers, scallions, and garnish it with bonito flakes. It certainly sounded rather appetizing, but that wasn't for Michiru to comment on. Similarly, they touched Mei Fan's egg-on-rice up by adding furikake and pieces of dried seaweed to her bowl.
The only dish the Siesho foodies had little to comment on was the plate of braised sea cucumbers placed in front of Michiru. Mei Fan had offered to prepare Michiru's dish for her, drawing upon a recipe she learned from back home that included some bok choy on the side seasoned with Maggi sauce.
And so, with their plates piled with food they would normally never eat of their own accord, the five Edels sat with one another in silence and trepidation.
"So…this is it." Yachiyo used her chopsticks to poke one of the pineapples in her sweet and sour pork. "Do we get a speech for good luck, Madam President?"
Akira huffed. "Normally I would turn down doing something like that for such a mundane event. However…"
Five gazes dropped down to the plates in front of them. While the food looked to have been prepared well, it was just… hard to swallow. Figuratively.
Hopefully it was easier literally.
Akira sighed. "I'll make an exception this time, though I'll keep it brief."
"I'm sorry, everyone," Shiori muttered softly. "I know you all agreed to join me, but I still feel a bit awful for burdening you all with my choice."
"Don't be, Shiori!" Mei Fan exclaimed. "This will be beneficial for all of us as well."
"Besides, the food is already made," Michiru pointed out. "If any of us wanted to back out now, it'd be a poor reflection on how an Edel should hold herself, wouldn't it?"
"Precisely, Michiru." Akira cleared her throat. "Along those lines, it is an Edel's duty to pursue the highest summit. We must overcome all challenges placed before us; no matter how small, no matter how insurmountable."
Akira's violet eyes dropped down to the eggplants placed before her, her scowl deepening. "No matter how… distasteful."
Michiru clinked her spoon against her glass of water. "Alright, alright. Thank you for the wonderful speech, Akira. Now then, should we get started? The sooner we can get through this, the better."
She received four nods in reply. A moment of silence passed before the gathered Edels wordlessly began to eat.
Michiru sighed internally, holding a piece of sea cucumber and bok choy between her chopsticks. Here goes nothing.
The food went into her mouth. She followed with a small bit of rice, and then started to chew.
Well, this wasn't so bad. The flavoring was nice, especially paired with the Chinese vegetables and rice. It might be possible to get through this. Michiru continued chewing, savoring the taste and texture—
This was absolutely awful.
A resounding echo of silverware clinked onto the table, followed by plates scraping across the surface. Mistakes had been made; that went without saying.
Yachiyo looked like she'd rather drink nail polish than keep the pineapples in her mouth, though she managed to swallow while keeping most of her dignity. Meanwhile, Shiori had bolted from her seat to the kitchen cabinets, blurting out something along the lines of making stronger tea. It was hard to hear when Mei Fan had slammed her forehead onto the dining table hard enough to rattle the dishes.
Michiru was close to doing the same. Instead, she grabbed her glass of water and finished the entire thing in one gulp. She was too busy trying to cleanse the chewiness of sea cucumber from her mouth to comment on Akira literally drinking from the hot sauce bottle.
"Oh, that never gets easier," Yachiyo groaned. She eyed her dish with a glare strong enough to roast potatoes. "Are we each supposed to eat all of this? I think I'd rather turn the pineapples in my plate into a puree."
The sound of water boiling could be heard behind them in the kitchen. But Shiori was still crashing through the kitchen, searching for who knows what. It seemed the natto had gotten to her head more so than her mouth.
Michiru placed her empty glass down, then snatched the half empty bottle of hot sauce from Akira's trembling hands. "Akira, go help Shiori with the tea. Make sure she doesn't rip the cabinet doors from their hinges."
Akira blinked, then replied with a stilted nod. "Right. Shiori will need help with the tea. I can do that. Away from… eggplants…"
Once Akira had fled from the table, Yachiyo leaned over to pat Mei Fan on the back. "Mei Faaan~ How're you doing there?"
Mei Fan mumbled something into the table before moving her face up from its surface to speak more coherently, "How do you guys eat raw eggs like this?! It's so… so…!"
"Honestly, I have to ask the same about sea cucumbers," Michiru tried, and failed, to hold back a scowl. "They're… ick."
"As long as you don't know what lives in them," Yachiyo commented so offhandedly that Michiru nearly had whiplash.
"What—" Michiru narrowed her eyes at her. No no no, it better not be something terrible.
"Nope, not elaborating."
Oh, Michiru couldn't do this any more.
The food couldn't be thrown out. This was painful, but Michiru refused to resort to wasting food. And it wasn't like all of them hated the same food. Therefore, the answer was simple.
"Akira, Shiori, come back here for a second," Michiru called out to them.
Shiori came back with a tray of tea, Akira following behind her with the kettle. "What is it, Michiru-senpai?"
"I'm solving our current dilemma." Michiru pointed to their seats. "Put the tea down and take a seat. No point letting the food waste away."
Akira's intense scowl returned. "Michiru, I refuse to eat any more of that… eggplant."
Michiru rolled her eyes. "Oh, don't be such a mush pepper. My idea is foolproof. I just need you both to sit down."
Akira raised an eyebrow at her. Nevertheless, she followed Michiru's instructions and returned to her seat after putting the kettle in the middle of the table where Shiori also placed the tray of tea.
"Alright everyone." Michiru raised her arms, her hands hovering around the sides of her plate. "Do what I'm doing but with your plates."
The other four mirrored her actions, still confused but waiting for her to continue.
"Grab your plate or bowl." Michiru did exactly that, then lifted it from the table. "Pick it up, and now pass it to the person on your right."
The sea cucumbers and vegetables left Michiru's possession, settling in front of Mei Fan. Mei Fan's bowl of egg and rice went to Shiori, Shiori's natto went to Yachiyo, Yachiyo's sweet and sour pork went to Akira, and finally the eggplant and cucumbers landed in front of Michiru.
There. Everything was solved.
"I trust no one has any objections about this arrangement?" Michiru asked with a wide smile.
Because if they did, she would shove Shiori's tea up their—
"None." Was the resounding reply.
"Oh! Shiori, would you like to try some of the sea cucumbers?" Mei Fan asked. "There isn't much in that bowl, so you can have some of my food as well!"
Shiori accepted with eagerness, then helped pour a cup of tea for each of the Edels. Apparently she had chosen to prepare a pot of assam tea, which wasn't the strangest choice for dinner. But…
I hope Shiori isn't too scarred by all of this.
In the end, dinner was finished without further fuss. The kitchen was cleaned and cleared, and Michiru reminded Yachiyo to thank Mahiru and Nana for their kind suggestions.
A few days later, Michiru found another box of natto in the fridge. She simply grabbed her walnut milk, chugged it straight from the carton, and slammed the door shut without saying another word.